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January 19, 2006

Obituary: Robert G. Hazo

Robert G. Hazo, founder of Pitt’s American Experience program and a long-time advocate of liberal education who was known for his sharp intellect and wit, died Jan. 6, 2006, of heart failure. He was 74.

Last fall, Hazo publicly announced his retirement from Pitt at an American Experience panel discussion. “This is my last hurrah,” Hazo told a Benedum auditorium audience Nov. 17. “This is my fourth and final retirement. But this one is non-negotiable.”

A Pittsburgh native who attended Central Catholic High School, Hazo earned a four-year scholarship to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., where he graduated at the top of his class.

Subsequently, he received a senior fellowship to Princeton, a Fulbright scholarship for study at the Sorbonne and a Rockefeller fellowship to pursue his passion for Middle East politics at the American University of Beirut.

Following his graduate studies, Hazo was named associate director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in San Francisco. In 1967, he authored “The Idea of Love,” part of the institute’s Concepts in Western Thought series.

He then was appointed senior editor for political, legal, social and economic articles at Encyclopedia Britannica before coming to Pitt in 1970 to found and direct the American Experience program, first housed in the College of General Studies. The program was transferred to the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and, in 1990, to the University Honors College.

Over the past 35 years, American Experience sponsored bi-annual lectures, discussions and debates featuring a who’s who of prominent local and national figures in politics, journalism, economics and political and social philosophy.

The program’s alums include George H.W. Bush, William F. Buckley Jr., Theodore Sorensen, Robert Novak, Shirley Temple Black, Tom Murphy, Milton Friedman, Geraldine Ferraro, Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, Dick Thornburgh, Julian Bond, Sam Donaldson, John Kenneth Galbraith, Teresa Heinz, Ted Turner and Janet Reno.

Until 1992, the program also offered non-credit seminars during which area administrators and executives would discuss public affairs problems.

G. Alec Stewart, dean of the University Honors College, said, “I attended many of his seminars starting in the ’80s, which were held Downtown and attended by executives and captains of industry. We would meet every two weeks and discuss the fundamental American documents, [by] Jefferson, Madison, etc. It was a real education for me. Robert was a master at leading a seminar.”

Hazo was a man of conviction who believed in open discussions of the great questions of life and who was successful in his primary goal of raising the level of public discourse through his American Experience seminars and lectures, Stewart said.

“He also was a remarkable character. He had the intellectual courage to say what was on his mind. This did not always endear him to the ‘higher-ups,’ but I had great admiration for that quality,” Stewart said. “Robert was a man of substance and style who understood the difference between celebrity and actually having something to say. He knew that visibility was not the same as wisdom. But underlying everything was his profound devotion to liberal education as a route to personal freedom and enlightenment.”

Gordon K. MacLeod, an emeritus professor of health services administration in the Graduate School of Public Health, said, “I was very close to Robert for a number of years. We’d often meet for lunch and we would talk on a wide range of subjects. He was a man of great intellect and a strong liberal persuasion, but not exclusively that.”

Hazo’s fierce loyalty to his Lebanese ancestry sometimes was misconstrued by critics, MacLeod said. “Some accused him of being anti-Semitic. But he was not anti-Semitic in any way I could tell. In fact, he was well regarded by many Jewish people in our community,” MacLeod said. “He made a valuable contribution to the University though the American Experience program. It is ironic that so soon after announcing he was stepping down as director he expired. Essentially, he was working till the end.”

Hazo was a frequent letter writer to (among many publications) the University Times, opining on topics ranging from qualities essential in a university chancellor to criticisms of U.S. military actions, from opposing bonus incentives for university administrators to religious and political issues in the troubled Middle East.

In a 1996 interview with the University Times marking the American Experience’s 25th anniversary, Hazo told a number of behind-the-scenes stories of famous people he had rubbed elbows with as part of the program. (See University Times, April 11, 1996.)

Some highlights of his memories from that interview include:

• Patrick Buchanan excoriated the news media in 1975, just a year after his former boss Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace.

• Teresa Heinz surprised Pennsylvania Republicans and made headlines in 1992 by denouncing Rick Santorum’s bid for her late husband’s U.S. Senate seat.

• In 1974, William F. Buckley Jr. ran up huge room service bills, at first alarming Hazo before he realized that Buckley had left instructions on the back of the bill to forward the charges to him.

• The late John Connally, former Texas governor and one-time presidential prospect, declined to accept his speaker’s fee out of respect for Hazo’s work.

• Shirley Temple Black, who was U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia at the time, charmed the audience, especially its older members, but got only a C+ grade from Hazo for her lecture.

Hazo is survived by his brother, poet Samuel Hazo; sister-in-law Mary Anne Hazo; nephew Samuel Robert Hazo, and his nephew’s family.

—Peter Hart

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